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Question time covers AWB and payments to UN oil for food program in Iraq.\n

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Thursday 2 March 2006

Question time covers AWB and payments to UN oil for food program in Iraq


MARK COLVIN: After weeks of parliamentary questions over AWB the Government might now have some respite. 


Parliament's not sitting for another three weeks. 


The Opposition has used every Question Time this year to press ministers about what they knew about AWB's involvement in Iraq. 


Today, the Prime Minister declared that persistence had been futile and the Opposition had "failed miserably" to make a case against the Government. 


From Canberra, Gillian Bradford reports. 


GILLIAN BRADFORD: At the Government's camp the Opposition has fired off a 110 questions about AWB over the past few weeks. 




JOHN HOWARD: (over shouts and interjections from the House) … We are now drawing to the end, and how many questions must it be - 60, 70, 80 questions Mr… 


COALITION MP: A hundred and ten, 110. 


JOHN HOWARD: A hundred and ten, Mr Speaker. It is a world record in futility. You've had all the time in the world to make your case and you've failed miserably.  


(sound of "Hear, hear" from Coalition MPs) 


GILLIAN BRADFORD: The Opposition leader Kim Beazley thinks he has built a case against the Government, built a case that ministers were aware as long as six years ago that serious allegations about kickbacks were swirling around AWB.  


KIM BEAZLEY: The picture is that this Government has been culpably negligent in relation to its administration of this critical program, our involvement in this critical program. This government has turned a blind eye to the subversion of the Oil-for-Food program.  


GILLIAN BRADFORD: The Opposition did today extract an admission from the Trade Minister Mark Vaile that he read a diplomatic cable some six years ago warning AWB was under suspicion for paying kickbacks in Iraq, though Mr Vaile denies this is inconsistent with anything he's already said.  


KIM BEAZLEY: Given the Deputy Prime Minister's admission for the first time today that he expects that his staff would have brought to his attention the contents of the cable of April 2001 from Bronte Moules, didn't the Deputy Prime Minister mislead the House when he said on the 8th of November 2005, "The allegations raised first came to my attention as a result of the Volcker inquiry." 


MARK VAILE: I mean, they're not very, very smart on the Labor side. They're not very, very clever. I mean, you continue to prove it and I refer the leader of the Opposition again… 


SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Order! Order! The Member for Ballarat is warned. Order. 


MARK VAILE: … To the answers that I gave then, that I did not mislead the Parliament. I answered those questions very clearly.  


GILLIAN BRADFORD: Mr Vaile has had a tough few weeks. He seems uncomfortable under the spotlight in Question Time and has been criticised for this trip to Iraq and for standing by the concept of a single desk for wheat farmers.  


The Foreign Minister Alexander Downer though is more at ease in Parliament. He's confident the Government has got through this few weeks unscathed.  


ALEXANDER DOWNER: The Opposition subsequently this week has come into the House waving around these cables and trying to convince people up here in the press gallery that there is something new here which hadn't been discussed. 


GILLIAN BRADFORD: Tony Abbott says the Opposition is so wrapped up in AWB it's forgotten voters have other things on their minds.  


TONY ABBOTT: Out there in the cities and towns and country areas of Australia, is this the only thing on people's minds? No, it's not. It's the only thing on the leader of the Opposition's mind because a scandal a day keeps his own problems away.  


GILLIAN BRADFORD: Over the next couple of weeks Kim Beazley and his Labor Party will be forced to deal with pre-selection dramas. Five sitting members are still under threat while one, frontbencher Bob Sercombe, has already stepped aside. But former leader Simon Crean and four others will be fighting for their political survival. 


It's a scenario the Government is relishing - a juicy story sure to steer the headlines away from AWB.  


MARK COLVIN: Gillian Bradford.